Flying Lost at Night

After work one night a week or so later, I flew up to Gainesville Regional Airport (GNV) to pick up a friend. GNV was the first controlled airport I’ve visited as a private pilot, and I was expecting it to be much busier. We flew around the local area, and then went to George T. Lewis Airport in Cedar Key (CDK), an island off the Gulf Coast about where the Florida peninsula meets the panhandle. There’s a bridge linking the island to the town, which is a popular fly-in resort.

Cedar Key has the shortest runway I’ve used so far (2200 feet), but it was still plenty long enough. It takes up the width of the key, so there is water at both ends. I used about two thirds of it for both the landing and takeoff, without using a short-field technique. The airport is unattended (although there were quite a few people there) and has no taxiway. The local cab has an aircraft radio, so pilots can arrange for a ride to town before landing. It was already 8:00 when we arrived, and since the airport has no lights, we only spent a few minutes there so we could leave before dark.

It became night on the return to GNV. At one point we saw a row of white lights miles in front of us, evenly spaced horizontally, and tried to guess what we were seeing. I was sure it wasn’t another aircraft, since the lights were all white and were not blinking. Several minutes later we discovered they were outfield lights at a baseball field. We must have been over twenty miles away when we first saw them. GNV does not have a lot around it, so I expected it to be easy to spot at night. We knew we were getting close and going in the right direction, since we were over the University of Florida campus, but we still didn’t see the airport.

Again there was no other traffic, and I was cleared to land on runway 6 before I could see the airport. We never saw the beacon or tower, but finally spotted the runway. GNV has two physical runways, 6 and 10, which almost touch at the west end, so the layout looks like the letter V. Even when I spotted the runway, I couldn’t see the other one, so I assumed only the active one was lit. As I landed, I realized I was on 10, instead of 6, where I had been cleared. The tower pointed this out, but the controller was nice about it. At many airports, I would have been chewed out or worse, but since there was no other traffic, the tower forgave my innocent mistake. (My concern was not so much the embarrassment, but the safety factor if there had been other planes.) I bet most of us will make this mistake at least once, and now that I think about it, it was my first night landing at an unfamiliar airport without a CFI.

I’m still not sure why we couldn’t see the taxiways and other runway from the air, since we taxied past them on the way to the ramp, and could see the lights. We left the airport to eat, and then I headed back home. It was past 10:00 when I took off; I knew that the tower would close at 10:30, and was tempted to wait to avoid any more mistakes in the presence of ATC. I didn’t wait, though. The runway I used points toward an area where there were no lights on the ground, and once past the end of the runway I realized I couldn’t see the horizon. It was a clear night, but the moon was just a sliver, so the black sky and ground blended together. I found it a little unnerving; I had to rely on the instruments to keep the proper pitch. Once I left GNV’s airspace I turned until I was headed toward an area with lights on the ground.

Interstate 75 runs through Gainesville and also close to my home airport, so I considered following it back to Tampa, but it goes well out of the way, and I didn’t want to use more fuel and time than necessary. The return flight would normally take about an hour, but the winds aloft must have been stronger than reported, giving me about a 20-knot headwind. I’ve had an easy time returning home from the south by keeping the lights of Tampa to my left and looking just east of them. I thought a similar strategy would work from the north, but after 80 minutes in the air, I was concerned that I didn’t see Tampa yet. The area I was over is fairly rural, and there aren’t a lot of good night checkpoints.

I noticed an airport beacon off to my left, and headed toward it although I knew it wasn’t my destination. I thought I’d try landing there, see which airport it was, and then plot a course back while on the ground. (I did have a VOR, charts, and a flashlight, but it’s not easy juggling them to find my position at night. A passenger would have been handy.) Most small airports have radio-controlled lighting, so the first step would be to turn on the runway lights. This was a catch 22; not knowing which airport it was, I didn’t know which frequency to use, but if I had known where I was, I wouldn’t have been trying to land there. I circled the airport and tried several common frequencies without luck.

At that point I decided it was time to get help. I called Flight Service and told them I was lost. They sent me to Tampa Approach, who gave me first-class service. Within two minutes, I had my location and the heading and distance to my home airport. They stayed with me until I had my destination in sight. It turned out that I was about on course when I made the call, but the flight was just taking longer than expected. I’m glad I called, though. It’s good to know how easy it is to get help when it’s needed. I should have used flight following, however, and avoided the whole problem, especially since I was flying an unfamiliar route.

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